Dem senators question Zuckerberg over report that Facebook tricked children into spending parents' money

Dem senators question Zuckerberg over report that Facebook tricked children into spending parents' money
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Democratic Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules Ocasio-Cortez taps supporters for donations as former primary opponent pitches for Kennedy Rep. Joe Kennedy has history on his side in Senate bid MORE (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) on Tuesday sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding answers about recently unsealed court documents that show Facebook knowingly tricked children into spending their parents' money without permission.

Markey and Blumenthal, members of the Senate Commerce Committee, called the revelations in a Center for Investigative Reporting report last week "highly troubling."

 

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Facebook for years ignored warnings that children were unknowingly spending their parents' money on games connected to the platform, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting investigation. Children at times racked up thousands in fees, which their parents often only discovered when they received their credit card bills, parents claim in the court documents from a 2012 class-action lawsuit. Facebook employees internally referred to the practice of children being duped into spending money as "friendly fraud." 

Facebook employees at one point drew up a plan to address the issue and even piloted a solution that they said was effective: requiring users to input the first six digits of a credit card number when making purchases. But Facebook ultimately decided against implementing the solution because it would harm revenue, according the Center for Investigative Reporting.

"A new report from The Center for Investigative Reporting shows that your company had a policy of willful blindness toward credit card charges by children – internally referred to as 'friendly fraud' – in order to boost revenue at the expense of parents," Markey and Blumenthal wrote in the letter.

"Notably, Facebook appears to have rejected a plan that would have effectively mitigated this risk and instead doubled down on maximizing revenue," they added. "We write to request additional information about these highly-troubling allegations." 

The senators are demanding Zuckerberg answer questions including when Facebook first became aware that children were spending their parents' money, what policy changes have been implemented at the company since the class-action lawsuit, whether the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has contacted Facebook over the issue, and more. 

 "These findings point to a problematic culture of putting profits ahead of your users’ financial wellbeing and raise serious concerns regarding the company’s willingness to engage responsibly in its interactions with children," the senators wrote.

Facebook confirmed to The Hill that it had received the letter from Blumenthal and Markey.

"We were contacted by the Center for Investigative Reporting last year, and we voluntarily unsealed documents related to a 2012 case about our refund policies for in-app purchases that parents believe were made in error by their minor children," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill, reiterating the comment Facebook gave in response to the original report. 

"Facebook works with parents and experts to offer tools for families navigating Facebook and the web," the spokesperson said. "As part of that work, we routinely examine our own practices, and in 2016 agreed to update our terms and provide dedicated resources for refund requests related to purchases made by minors on Facebook."

A coalition of consumer groups on Tuesday released a separate letter raising concerns about Facebook's relationship with its children users, claiming that the recent report makes "it clear that Facebook is unfit to create platforms or products for kids."

The signatories, which include the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and fourteen other consumer groups, are pressing an issue that they have brought up for months: Facebook's messenger app for children, called Messenger Kids. 

"One year ago we sent you a letter, signed by more than 100 public health advocates, urging you to discontinue Messenger Kids, Facebook’s first social media app designed specifically for children under the age of 13," the groups wrote in the letter to Facebook.

"Now, in light of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s revelation that Facebook knowingly and intentionally defrauded kids into spending millions of dollars over several years, we write again to demand that you immediately shut down Facebook Messenger Kids, and cease all child-targeted business operations," they added.

The groups argue that the revelations in the court documents provide insight into "intentionally exploitative motivations and business practices regarding children." 

"The unsealed documents released last week from the 2012 lawsuit are completely unrelated to Messenger Kids," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. "Messenger Kids was released in 2017 and built from the ground up with input from families as well as privacy and safety experts to protect kids' privacy and put parents in control."

“Messenger Kids does not have advertisements or in-app purchase options, and parents have control over their child's experience within the app," the spokesperson added.

Markey and Blumenthal are asking for a response to their letter to Zuckeberg by Feb. 19.